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The Oneness of Retail

Amazon Go; Source-Wikimedia (Brianc333a)

[Accompanying Image credit: Amazon Go; CC/Wikimedia Commons/Brianc333a)]

To many, retail seems to be having an identity crisis.

Closed storefronts on American and European streets and dead malls in India and China are blamed on the growth of online retail. At the same time, the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon, is opening physical stores and buying offline retail operations in the US and in India, while the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, is busy digesting India’s ecommerce market leader. Even India’s online fashion and lifestyle websites – among them Myntra, Firstcry, Yepme and Faballey – are acquiring offline brands or opening stores. Or both.

What in the world is going on?

The short answer: consumers want choice; and retailers have no choice.

For many, ecommerce still seems to have the “new car smell” after more than 20 years, the message pitched so desperately by the founders of and investors in ecommerce companies still echoing: that this “new kid” will make customers’ lives a quintillion times better and wipe out the competition. Two decades on, and hundreds of billions of dollars of investment later, online retail is estimated to be about 12% of the global market. Ecommerce is 10% of the US market, of which Amazon takes up about half. In India the figure is in the vicinity of 2%, with that share is virtually stitched up between Walmart-owned Flipkart Group and Amazon.

Clearly, consumers value offline retail stores, whether for convenience or as holistic brand ambassadors. You can’t take away the fact that retail for us is theatre, experience, social.

Over at physical retail businesses, managers have been terrified of “channel conflict”. Senior management have squeezed resources for online, even when return-on-capital was demonstrably better than a new store. Some have refused to publicise their own company’s website through in-store banners, fearing that the customers would get sucked away from the store. It has been strange to see this opportunity being passed up – if a customer is trusts you to walk into your physical store, why would you not want to connect with them at other points of time when they are not near your store?

As I’ve written earlier, retail is not and should not be divided between “old-world physical” and “upstart online”. Successful retailers and brands have always been able to integrate multiple channels and environments to reach their customers.

For instance, British fashion retailer Next has long used a combination of physical stores (of varying sizes) as well as mail order catalogue side-by-side, and then ecommerce as the digital medium grew. Another British retailer, Argos, took another angle and embedded a catalogue inside the physical store – first a paper catalogue, and then on-screen.

American designer Rebecca Minkoff has taken this unification further. Without the weight of legacy systems, the brand attempts to create a seamless experience for the customer, unifying the store, in-store digital interfaces such as smart dressing rooms, the website and the mobile.

No doubt, for older companies, integrating is tough; business systems and people are in disconnected silos, incentivised narrowly. Each channel needs different mindsets, capabilities, processes and systems, to ensure that the optimal customer experience appropriate for the interface, whether it is a store, mobile app, website or catalogue. But etailers opening physical stores have their own challenges, too, tackling the messy slowness of the physical world, where you can’t instantly switch the store layout after an A:B test. They now need to develop those very “old-world skills” and overheads that they thought they would never need.

Regardless of where they begin, retailers need to mould and blend their business models with proficiency across channels. In the evolving environment, any brand or retailer must aim to offer as seamless an experience to the customer as feasible, where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand.

Varying circumstances make customers choose different buying environments. At different times or on different days of the week, even the same person may choose to shop in entirely different ways. Successful retailers that outlast their competitors have used a variety of formats and channels to meet their customers, and will continue to do so.

To my mind, retailers have no choice but to see the retail business as one, even as it is fluid and evolving. A retailer’s only choice is to bend with the customer’s choice.

(Published in the Financial Express under the title “Uniting retail: Why online versus offline debate must end“)

One Ring That Rules Them All

In this piece I’ll just focus on one aspect of technology – artificial intelligence or AI – that is likely to shape many aspects of the retail business and the consumer’s experience over the coming years.

To be able to see the scope of its potential all-pervasive impact we need to go beyond our expectations of humanoid robots. We also need to understand that artificial intelligence works on a cycle of several mutually supportive elements that enable learning and adaptation. The terms “big data” and “analytics” have been bandied about a lot, but have had limited impact so far in the retail business because it usually only touches the first two, at most three, of the necessary elements.

Elements in Operationalizing Big Data and AI

“Big data” models still depend on individuals in the business taking decisions and acting based on what is recommended or suggested by the analytics outputs, and these tend to be weak links which break the learning-adaptation chain. Of course, each of these elements can also have AI built in, for refinement over time.

Certainly retailers with a digital (web or mobile) presence are in a better position to use and benefit from AI, but that is no excuse for others to “roll over and die”. I’ll list just a few aspects of the business already being impacted and others that are likely to be in the future.

  1. Know the customer: The most obvious building block is the collection of customer data and teasing out patterns from it. This has been around so long that it is surprising what a small fraction of retailers have an effective customer database. While we live in a world that is increasingly drowning in information, most retailers continue to collect and look at very few data points, and are essentially institutionally “blind” about the customers they are serving.
    However, with digital transactions increasing, and compute and analytical capability steadily become less expensive and more flexible via the cloud, information streams from not only the retailers’ own transactions but multiple sources can be tied together to achieve an ever-better view of the customer’s behaviour.
  2. Prediction and Response: Not only do we expect “intelligence” to identify, categorise and analyse information streaming in from the world better, but to be able to anticipate what might happen and also to respond appropriately.
    Predictive analytics have been around in the retail world for more than a decade, but are still used by remarkably few retailers. At the most basic level, this can take the form of unidirectional reminders and prompts which help to drive sales. Remember the anecdote of Target (USA) sending maternity promotions based on analytics to a young lady whose family was unaware of her pregnancy?
    However, even automated service bots are becoming more common online, that can interact with customers who have queries or problems to address, and will get steadily more sophisticated with time. We are already having conversations with Siri, Google, Alexa and Cortana – why not with the retail store?
  3. Visual and descriptive recognition: We can describe to another human being a shirt or dress that we want or call for something to match an existing garment. Now imagine doing the same with a virtual sales assistant which, powered by image recognition and deep learning, brings forward the appropriate suggestions. Wouldn’t that reduce shopping time and the frustration that goes with the fruitless trawling through hundreds of items?
  4. Augmented and virtual reality: Retailers and brands are already taking tiny steps in this area which I described in another piece a year ago (“Retail Integrated”) so I won’t repeat myself. Augmented reality, supported by AI, can help retail retain its power as an immersive and experiential activity, rather than becoming purely transaction-driven.

On the consumer-side, AI can deliver a far higher degree of personalisation of the experience than has been feasible in the last few decades. While I’ve described different aspects, now see them as layers one built on the other, and imagine the shopping experience you might have as a consumer. If the scenario seems as if it might be from a sci-fi movie, just give it a few years. After all, moving staircases and remote viewing were also fantasy once.

On the business end it potentially offers both flexibility and efficiency, rather than one at the cost of the other. But we’ll have to tackle that area in a separate piece.

(Also published in the Business Standard.)

The Next New Thing: A Retail Store

Much has been written recently, with more than a touch of surprise, about ecommerce companies opening physical retail stores. Whether it is Amazon, Birchbox and Bonobos in the US, Spartoo in France, Astley Clarke in the UK or FirstCry and Flipkart in India, young tech-based ecommerce businesses are adopting the ways of the dinosaur retailers that they were apparently going to drive into extinction.

Perhaps, the seeds of the surprise lie in the perception that the ecommerce companies themselves built for their investors, the media and the public, that it was only a matter of time that the traditional retail model would be dead.

Or perhaps we should pin it on their investors for keeping the companies on the “pure-play” path so far – venture funds that have invested in ecommerce have largely taken the view that the more “asset-light” the business, the better it is; so they’re far happier spending on technology development, marketing, salaries, and even rent, than on stores and inventory.

After a bloody discounting and marketing battle, in a few short years, there are now a handful of ecommerce businesses left standing in a field littered with dead ecommerce bodies, surrounded by many seriously wounded physical retailers who are trying to pick up unfamiliar technology weapons. And their worlds are merging.

Which is a Stronger Building Material – Bricks or Clicks?

Online business models offer some clear strengths. Etailers have a reach that is unlimited by time and geography – the web store is always up and available wherever the etailer chooses to deliver its products.

An ecommerce brand’s inventory is potentially more optimised, because it is held in one location or a few locations, rather than being spread out in retail stores all across the market including in those stores where it may not be needed.

However, we forget that consumers don’t really care to have their choices and shopping behaviour dictated by the business plans of ecommerce companies or their investors. The fact is that physical retail environments do have distinct advantages, as etailers are now discovering.

omnichannel-2

Firstly, shopping is as much an experiential occasion as it is a transaction comprising of products and money. In fact, the word “theatre” has been used often in the retail business. For products that have a touch-feel element, the physical retail environment continues to be preferred by the customer. Of course, there are products that could be picked off a website with little consideration to the retail environment. For standard products such as diapers or a pair of basic headphones, online convenience may win over the need for a physical experience. However, non-standard products such as apparel or jewellery lend themselves to experiential buying, where a physical retail store definitely has an edge.

Shopping in a physical retail environment is also a social and participative activity. We take our friends or family along, we ask for their opinion and get it real-time. The physical retail environment lends itself to the consumer being immersed in multiple sensory experiences at the same time. These aspects are not replicable even remotely to the same degree by online social sharing of browsed products, wish-lists and purchases, nor by virtual smell and touch (at least not yet!).

In a market that is dominated by advertising noise, a physical store also helps to create a more direct and stronger connect for the consumer with the brand than any website or app can. An offline presence creates credibility for a brand, especially in an environment where online sales are dominated by discounts and deals, and many brands have risen and fallen online in the customer’s eyes during the last 3-4 years.

As a matter of fact, every store acts as a powerful walk-in billboard for the brand. If used well, the store conveys brand messages more powerfully than pure advertisements in any form. This reality has been embraced by retailers for decades, as they have created concept stores and flagship stores in locations with rents and operating costs that are otherwise unviable, except when you see it as a marketing investment.

Showrooming vs. Webrooming

As ecommerce has grown and brands have become available across channels, offline and online, the retail sector has been faced with a new challenge: customers browsing through products in the store, but placing orders with ecommerce sites that offered them the best deal. This obviously meant that retailers were, in a sense, running expensive showrooms (without compensation) on behalf of the ecommerce companies! The industry adopted the term “showrooming” to describe the phenomenon.

However, ecommerce businesses are now getting a taste of their own medicine as retailers are benefitting from a reverse traffic.

Consumers have now started using websites to conveniently do comparative shopping without leaving the comfort of their homes, and collect information on product features and prices but, once the product choice has been narrowed down, the final decision and the actual purchase takes place in a physical store.

This is described with a slightly unwieldy term, “webrooming”. This is one among the reasons that lead to consumers abandoning browsing sessions and carts when they’re online.

Bricks AND Clicks

The wide split between offline and online channels is mainly because traditional offline retailers have been slow to adopt online and mobile shopping environments.

Most physical retailers around the world have approached ecommerce as an after-thought, with a “we also do this” kind of an approach. Ecommerce has typically been a small part of their business, and not typically a focus area for top management. So, in most cases the consumer’s attitude has also reflected these retailers’ own indifference to their ecommerce presence. However, due to the accelerating penetration of mobiles, tablets and other digital devices, a serious online transactional presence is now vital for any retailer that wants to remain top of the consumer’s list.

On the other hand, ecommerce companies, as mentioned earlier, have so far mainly stuck to “pure-play” online presence due to their own reasons. However, with passage of time there is bound to be a convergence and eventually a fusion between channels.

The Journey to Omnichannel

Omnichannel today, in my opinion, is still more a buzzword today than a reality. Being truly omnichannel requires the brand or retailer to offer a seamless experience to the customer where the customer never feels disconnected from the brand, regardless of the channel being used during the information seeking, purchase and delivery process. For instance, a customer might seek initial comparative information online, step into a department store to try a product, pay for it online, have the product delivered at home, and be provided after-sales support by a service franchisee of the brand.

Very few companies can claim to offer a true omnichannel experience, due to internal informational and management barriers. However, having an effective multi-channel presence is the first step to creating this, since operating across different channels needs a completely different management mind-set from the original single-channel business. Having a presence across different channel means that a retailer will need to juggle the diverse needs. Capabilities, processes and systems that are fine-tuned for one channel, may not be fully optimal for another channel. This requires the retailer to restructure its organisation, systems and processes to handle the different service requirements of the various channels.

For instance, brick-and-mortar retailers moving online need to rethink in terms of the service (“always open”), speed (“right now”), and scale (“everywhere”). A traditional retail organisation is seldom agile enough to work well with the new technology-enabled channels as well.

An etailer opening physical stores, on the other hand, needs to embrace product ranging and merchandising skills to allocate appropriate inventory to various locations, as well as the ability to create and maintain a credible, distinctive store environment – in essence, inculcating old-world skills and overheads that they thought they would never need.

The retail business is not divided black-or-white between old-world physical retailers and the upstart online kids – at least the consumer doesn’t think so.

Retailers need to and will see themselves logically serving customers across multiple channels that are appropriate for their product mix. They need to mould their business models until they achieve balance, proficiency and excellence across channels, and eventually become truly omnichannel businesses. It doesn’t matter from which side of the digital divide they began.